A broader palette: Steward pictures an art museum that 'sets the standard'

Steward in gallery under construction

James Steward, the new director of the Princeton University Art Museum, is embracing a host of strategies to enhance the museum's visibility and improve the accessibility of its exhibitions. The Medieval, Byzantine and Islamic galleries, closed for several years for renovations, will reopen later this month with new interpretive tools that will greatly expand the museum's approach to explaining objects. Here, Steward surveyed the galleries' reconstruction. (Photo: Denise Applewhite)

The Princeton University Art Museum by the numbers:

  • Number of pieces in the museum's collections: 72,000
  • Number of fine art photographs in the collection: 27,000
  • Square footage of the galleries: 29,000
  • Average number of exhibitions featured annually: 12
  • Pieces loaned annually to other museums: 100
  • Projected number of visitors from July 2009 to June 2010: 108,000
  • Number of schoolchildren who visit yearly: 8,500
  • Visits by Princeton University students annually for precepts: 3,600
  • Docents who volunteer to give tours, teach children and greet visitors: 90
  • Visitors to the museum's website each month: 10,000
  • Recipients of the museum's biweekly e-newsletter: 2,000
  • Fans of the museum on Facebook: 795

On a warm Thursday night in September, crowds of students, staff and community members filled the Princeton University Art Museum.

There were Indian samosas and chocolate-covered strawberries to snack on, lattes made to order and several of the University's a cappella groups on hand to croon soulful melodies while visitors roamed through the museum's galleries. In all 2,400 people visited the museum that evening to celebrate the new extended hours on Thursdays, delighting James Steward, the new director of the museum.
"It was unparalleled in the history of this museum," Steward said. His next challenge, he said, is "making sure they come back."

Steward, who took over as head of the museum last April, is embracing a host of strategies to enhance the museum's visibility and accessibility -- not just on and around campus, but within wider art circles.

"We have one of the greatest but perhaps lesser known art collections in the nation," he said. "We have an exceptional opportunity to make the museum an essential part of the lives of our students and broader community."

Steward, a specialist in 18th- and 19th-century European art and culture, came to Princeton from the University of Michigan, where he served for 11 years as director of the Museum of Art and a faculty member. Before that he was chief curator at the Berkeley Art Museum at the University of California. At Princeton, Steward is a lecturer with the rank of professor in the Department of Art and Archaeology, an Old Dominion Faculty Fellow of the Council of the Humanities and co-chair of the Campus Art Commission, which oversees public art at the University.

Steward at podium

One of Steward's first priorities in taking the helm of the museum has been reaching out broadly to the University community. In December he gave a talk about the museum to local residents who participate in the University's Community Auditing Program. (Photo: Denise Applewhite)

"James Steward arrived at a challenging time, in the midst of a budgetary crunch, but he has been tremendously creative about designing new initiatives that will bring exciting exhibitions and more visitors to the museum," said Princeton Provost Christopher Eisgruber.

Steward believes that, because it is based at a university, the museum can -- and must -- take more risks. "We don't have to simply show contemporary artists taken up by the marketplace," he said. "We can be more issues-driven, cross-disciplinary and global in our reach. I expect us to set the standard, to be audacious and to develop new approaches to installation and interpretation."

The museum is embarking on an effort to transform the way it arranges and displays its collections; to involve more faculty and prominent figures in the art world; and to partner with the broader arts community, including international partnerships. Steward would like to double the museum's number of visitors in the next few years.

Students streaming into museum

Some 2,400 students, staff and community members filled the museum last September for the first Late Thursday event, when the doors stay open until 10 p.m. Steward launched the new hours to boost the museum's availability to the community while updating its approach by transforming displays of collections, involving more faculty and prominent figures in the art world, and partnering with the broader arts community. (Photo: Frank Wojciechowski)

Mixing things up

The museum's diverse and encyclopedic collections comprise 72,000 objects, reaching from ancient civilizations to contemporary art, housed at McCormick Hall on campus. Its art of the ancient Americas -- frequently assessed as the best such collection in the United States -- has thousands of exceptional objects not currently on display that will be rotated more actively through the galleries in the coming years, Steward said. The museum's collection of Chinese scroll paintings is one of the richest in North America, with works dating from many centuries, some very fragile. The University's Charles Willson Peale portrait of George Washington -- known as the Princeton portrait -- is one of the iconic images of American art and is often on view at the art museum.

The museum's 27,000 fine art photographs make it one of the leading repositories for photography in the world, Steward said. Another treasure is the personal archive of photographer Minor White, which was donated to the museum in 1976. The collection has 10,000 pieces and includes works by many of the most important photographers of the first half of the 20th century.

To bring heightened visibility to the museum's assets, Steward is planning more frequent rotation of objects and more exposure of its photography, creating two galleries that regularly will be devoted to the medium. He looks forward to incorporating photography extensively throughout exhibitions, an illustration of his interdisciplinary approach.

Charles Willson Peale's portrait of George Washington

One of the University's treasures is the Charles Willson Peale portrait of George Washington, which is often on view at the art museum. Part of the Princeton portrait collection, "George Washington at the Battle of Princeton" is one of the iconic images of American art. (Photo: Bruce M. White)

"I'm not much in favor of having segregated galleries for painting, sculpture, prints and drawings, or indeed for works from specific cultures installed in silos," Steward said. "We're going to mix things up visually a good deal."

In the 19th-century European galleries, for example, paintings and photographs from the same period will be shown together, so "you would be able to see, side by side, works made by artists working in the same culture at the same moment, though their visual purposes and strategies might be quite different."

Such mixed-media approaches across all the galleries would create a kind of museum-wide "intervention" and make "anti-chronological juxtapositions to discover new resonances and bring out points of cultural contact," he said. "We wouldn't be unique among museums in doing so, but it would be unusual, especially to do so with the kind of scholarly 'brain trust' on which we can draw by involving the faculty."

Steward also plans to bring prominent art world figures to the museum as artists-in-residence or guest curators, which will enrich exhibitions and foster opportunities for faculty and students. New curatorial partnerships are already in the works with the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Menil Collection in Houston for future exhibitions on English Renaissance art and the art of Kurt Schwitters. The first international artist-in-residence will come to Princeton in the coming academic year, possibly in relation to a fall exhibition on contested landscapes around the world.

"One of the museum's great advantages is our location," Steward said. Princeton's proximity to New York and Philadelphia -- what he terms "being near the urban center but fruitfully not of it" -- is an asset for attracting top artists and scholars, and it offers opportunities for collaborations with a wide range of museums and galleries, he said.

Hal Foster, Princeton's Townsend Martin Class of 1917 Professor of Art and Archaeology, said, "James has terrific range -- he's interested in all kinds of fields in art history. He has good ideas to reach out not only to the local community but also to the extended art world in New York and Philadelphia. I'm very excited for the possibilities."

The museum plans to make a substantial investment in a variety of new interpretive tools that will greatly expand its approach to explaining objects beyond the square of information about each piece mounted on the wall. New tools -- both low-tech and high-tech -- would allow more comparison of objects, offer multiple meanings of a single object or address how a piece illuminates the evolution of an artist's style or reflects a period's cultural values. For example, a museum visitor with a cell phone may be able to dial a phone number displayed with a work of art to listen to music of the period or an interview with the artist.

New interpretive tools will debut in February in the Medieval, Byzantine and Islamic galleries, which will reopen after being closed for several years amid structural renovations in the building.

Another way that Steward is enhancing the museum's accessibility is by creating an online database of every object in the collections. When the multiyear project is complete, anyone will be able to search the collections online -- enhancing research access as well as the collections' visibility.

Steward also will add year-round programming, beginning this summer with a groundbreaking exhibition called "Starburst" that looks at color photography from the 1970s. In the past exhibitions only changed during the academic year.

"I want there to be something compelling in our temporary exhibition galleries no matter what time of year a visitor comes to us," he said.

bustling gallery

Free food and beverages at some Late Thursday events draw people who may have never visited the museum before. "We have one of the greatest but perhaps lesser known art collections in the nation," Steward said. "We have an exceptional opportunity to make the museum an essential part of the lives of our students and broader community." (Photo: Frank Wojciechowski)

Embracing the community

One of Steward's first priorities has been reaching out broadly to the University community, particularly to students. His first step was to keep the doors open until 10 p.m. every Thursday, launching the new hours in September with a night of live music, free food and beverages from 20 Princeton eateries. Subsequent Thursday nights have featured film screenings, musical performances and free food and coffee. Other changes already under way or being planned share the goal of the Thursday night events: boost the museum's openness and public prominence while updating its approach.

He also has created a 12-member student advisory board to plan events geared to students and to advise the museum on how it can play a bigger role in students' lives.

"One of my goals is to serve every student here," Steward said. "We want to create a sense that the museum is a place for everyone -- not just an art or art history student, but an engineer or a student in the life sciences."

The museum now has a student outreach coordinator, Princeton alumna Elizabeth Lemoine, who has recruited 160 student volunteers to raise awareness about the museum and provide information at its events. She also organizes poetry readings, concerts, scavenger hunts and behind-the-scenes tours for students.

"We're really using the space in a whole new way," said Lemoine, a member of the class of 2009 who majored in comparative literature and earned a certificate in visual arts. "The museum is becoming a bigger part of students' lives."

Steward also is interested in engaging faculty members. Johanna Seasonwein, who serves as the Mellon Curatorial Fellow for Academic Programs, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, helps faculty members develop courses using the museum's collections. Workshops for faculty -- to acquaint them with how to make better use of the museum's resources in their classrooms -- also are planned.

Carol Rigolot, executive director of the Council of the Humanities, describes Steward as "a wonderfully dynamic, imaginative force on campus, attuned to ideas and colleagues in many disciplines."

"I want to find the connective tissue between art and chemistry, or art and genomics, or art and civil engineering," Steward said. "There's been a rich history of faculty serving as curators of exhibits, particularly with art and archaeology, but I'd like to open it up, to expand the museum's intellectual reach and ultimately create opportunities for every Princeton student to discover the enriching power of art and become lifelong patrons of the arts."

In addition, Steward is working to strengthen ties between the museum and local arts groups. This fall the museum launched a collaborative project with the Princeton Arts Council on art from the Bering Strait. The museum's exhibition, "Gifts From the Ancestors: Ancient Ivories of Bering Strait," focused on ancient carvings made by hunters on the American and Russian sides of the Strait, while the Arts Council showed work from contemporary Native Alaskan artists about the Alaskan landscape. The exhibitions had compatible opening dates and a joint marketing strategy, as well as a panel on the treatment of indigenous art and a family day held on the plaza adjacent to the Princeton Public Library. Concerts jointly organized with the Princeton Symphony Orchestra and the Princeton Singers are planned for the spring.

Such partnerships and others currently being explored with a range of international museums, universities and research centers mean the museum can enrich its programming even in the current challenging fiscal environment, Steward said.

And he is reaching out to a variety of other audiences beyond the University and immediate neighbors. Each year about 100,000 people visit the museum, which charges no entrance fee. He said he would like to double the number of visitors in the next few years, noting that with 14 million residents within a 45-mile radius and an estimated 750,000 annual visitors to the Princeton campus, even that goal might be conservative.

"We want the museum to matter to a broader public, whether that is people living in the region or visitors to the community for whom this could become a destination," he said.

Events targeting young professionals are in the works, and Steward hopes to expand an existing program that brings Trenton schoolchildren to the museum multiple times during a single year.
"Our work with third-graders in the Trenton public schools -- each of whom comes to us seven times a year -- offers exposure to children bursting with creativity who might not otherwise come into contact with masterpieces of world art, and we'd love to replicate that program for other school districts," he said. "But first we'd have to find the funding."

The museum has boosted its outreach to the public with the recent launch of an electronic newsletter as well as a Facebook page, where some 800 current fans read posts about new exhibitions, participate in identify-the-art contests, blog about issues in the wider art world and speculate about the new public art to be installed in front of the museum later this year.

Steward himself often writes Facebook updates for the museum's fans, reporting on his visits to art exhibitions in Europe and commenting on recent art critiques in newspapers.

"We want to be meaningful and available to a wide set of audiences -- every way we can," Steward said.